Still no good news for Barack “Underdog” Obama. As Ed reported yesterday, the same Washington Post-ABC News poll that showed Herman Cain rising showed Barack Obama falling — but Cain’s ascendancy obscured the news about the president’s ever-increasing unpopularity.
Not today. Headlines to highlight “hardening” disapproval of the president have popped up all over the place this morning. Drudge ran it in red. Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake at The Fix made it a top topic. The Hill reported the WaPo-ABC poll as though it were released today.
The point is, the president’s high disapproval rate is indeed crystallizing — and newsies aren’t letting it go unnoticed:
Four in 10 Americans “strongly” disapprove of how the president is handling his job, up from 28 percent at the start of the year. Obama’s disapproval rating has steadily grown since the beginning of the year as the economy has stalled.
Obama’s troubling numbers can be partially attributed to the loss of independents. 43 percent of those not affiliated by party strongly disapprove of the job he has been doing. The president has also struggled with the elderly — 47 percent of those over 65 years old strongly disapprove of the job he is doing.
Signs point to true dissatisfaction with the president’s performance, rather than greater polarization between those who love and hate the president. Only 21 percent of those polled strongly approve of the job the president is doing, down from 20 percent in January. Only 43 percent of Democrats strongly approve of Obama’s job performance.
Today’s sour news of September’s 212 percent increase in layoffs from September of last year should do nothing to change popular displeasure with the president. And while the WaPo-ABC poll also showed strong support for the president’s jobs plan among Democrats and liberals, Senate Democrats’ desperation to rewrite the bill to eliminate tax increases (or else risk a filibuster-proof supermajority) indicates the president won’t win a quick victory there, either.
Furthermore, the message of that jobs plan — a blatant rebuke of the wealthy for their success — could jeopardize Obama’s reelection strategy, which depends in part for its success on the retainment of white-collar professionals who have become a crucial component of a winning Democratic coalition. In general, and perhaps a bit counterintuitively, a populist message doesn’t play well even if populist measures frequently poll well:
Liberals have long argued that a message calling for the wealthy to pay their fair share is broadly popular—and indeed, most polls show voters support abstract proposals calling for higher taxes on the rich. But it’s rarely worked in practice. If taxes were raised as part of a comprehensive economic plan raising revenues and cutting spending, that’s one thing. As part of a political argument designed to mobilize the base for his reelection campaign, it’s bound to be received less warmly. The fact that moderate congressional Democrats have been keeping the proposal at arm’s length says more about the plan’s popularity than polls testing different arguments, without context.
In the end, the political law of gravity usually wins out. In its latest survey of political ideology, Gallup found 41 percent of the electorate defining itself as conservative, 36 percent as moderate, and just 21 percent as liberal. Obama’s tax-and-jobs plan has been embraced by the latter group, a sign of how the overall public will perceive it.
When Republicans run to the base, as George W. Bush did in 2004, they’re appealing to a healthy plurality of the country’s electorate. When Democrats do the same, they’re appealing to a much smaller faction.
So, what’s the president to do? For starters, his job. Paradoxically, if the president were just a little less concerned about his own reelection and a little more concerned with the long-term well-being of the country (which would necessarily mean he would demonstrate a willingness to at last substantively address the deficit and debt), he might stop the plummet of his own popularity. But he won’t do that — and a number of those who “disapprove” of the president right now will still vote for him in November 2012. Still, if he doesn’t watch out, he just might actually become the underdog.